Don Tylinski inherited a challenge when he became superintendent of the Seneca Valley (Pa.) School District in 2004. The 7,363-student K12 district located 30 miles north of Pittsburgh was under strain because of the arrival of large new industries in the area, including a new facility of global nuclear power plant builder Westinghouse. "The growth in student population had everyone in the district scrambling. We lost consistency in the curriculum," says Tylinski.
As a result, the Pittsburgh Business Times, which ranks districts based upon the results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams held in grades 3-8 and 11, ranked SVSD as 43rd out of 100 districts in western Pennsylvania, much lower than the community wanted the district to be. Specifically, SVSD had a difficult time identifying and reaching its struggling K8 students and helping them advance to grade level. "Teachers couldn't reach them because they did not have the resources or lessons at each student's specific level," says Tylinski. Administrators felt there needed to be a more individualized approach to assessment and instruction.
The district implemented a multi-tiered strategy, combining improvements in instruction, early intervention and assessment. Several resources were critical. "Technology filled the gap that had prevented us from reaching a lot of kids in the past," says Tylinski. SVSD implemented Compass Learning's Odyssey curriculum software and assessments from the Northwest Evaluation Association, but administrators also needed a way to identify the prerequisite skills that students needed for each grade level. "A good portion of education is sequential, and concepts have to be learned in a certain order," explains Tylinski. To that end, the district implemented a Web-based program called Learning Plans On Demand from the International Learning Corporation.
Creating Custom Learning Plans
To use Learning Plans On Demand, teachers log in to the Web site, select the subject area, narrow down to the grade level and specific topic within each, and select from a page of learning objectives within the topic that are correlated to state standards. To determine if students need remediation, teachers select objectives and the program designs an assessment test that can be printed or taken by students online. The program then creates a custom lesson plan that includes lists of necessary materials, worksheets, and detailed teaching techniques and strategies targeted to each student's level.
Learning Plans On Demand also allows administrators to monitor which teachers are using the program and how, how well students are doing, and which specific skills most often require remediation. "When a teacher creates an individual plan, the program keeps a record of that information, and administrators can access reports detailing the contents," says K6 assistant superintendent Jeffrey Fuller. "This allows us at the district level to pinpoint what we need to enhance in our curriculum, or in which prior grade levels we need to be doing something different," says Tylinski.
Five years after Tylinski joined the district, and after these strategies, student achievement has significantly improved, lifting Seneca Valley in the Pittsburgh Business Times rankings from 43rd to 16th. "These technologies have been a big part of it. Years ago, when I was told that someday we would have individualized instruction in schools, I was skeptical. But after the success of the past five years, I think we're definitely getting there."
The superintendent is not quick to claim credit, however. "This job is like being a coach following another coach. Every superintendent has different goals to deal with at different times. I didn't have the population growth and building projects that my predecessors did, for example. Instead, I have been able to focus on improving the curriculum, raising achievement and getting more resources like this into the hands of teachers."